Speak Up For The IT Career

It's time for U.S. businesses to stop taking the tech talent pipeline for granted.

Chris Murphy, Editor, InformationWeek

October 1, 2005

9 Min Read

No Safe Ground
Rockart doesn't hesitate to recommend the field: "I tell people to go into the field. The need for people who can do the job of being a business manager and technical manager is greater than it ever has been before."

Taking a stand for the IT career path isn't without big risk. The entire economy is moving into uncharted global competition. Globalization has brought dramatic change to what IT people do in the United States, and it isn't done reshaping the profession. The goal for young pros should be to find a good foundation from which to change, rather than hoping for safe ground. "In which industry are you going to go where you aren't going to have to compete?" asks Phil Zwieg, a VP of IS at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. "You've got to stay on your game to be able to compete."

That's not to diminish the changes hitting the IT industry. At its low in 2004, there were 25% fewer U.S. programming jobs than in 2000--that's more than 190,000 people who left the field or had to learn a new role, according to analysis of Bureau of Labor statistics by InformationWeek editor-at-large Eric Chabrow. Employment of IT managers, meanwhile, has risen 75% in the last four years, though it's still just 10% of the IT workforce. Total IT employment is around 3.35 million, after bottoming out last year at around 3.15 million. The totals hide the turmoil that individuals face when forced to change roles. But they suggest a still-strong sector overall.

The threat of global competition didn't drive Diane Zhang away from an IT career. She graduated from Penn State nine months ago in information sciences and technologies, and now she's a colleague of Huang's at Vanguard, rotating through a technology leadership program. She's doing Web-user interface development, using a component development approach that allows a consistent brand image and architecture across all Vanguard sites. Zhang predicts lots of opportunity in IT, as long as she takes a broad view of what an "IT person" is and keeps her work tied to business units and customers.

"I see myself as an IT professional, but it's all about solving problems of the business," says Zhang, who started a master's of IS in the spring and later plans to get an MBA. "IT is really exciting and unpredictable and always changing. And I think it's growing, and there's always something new to learn."

Demand for IT-educated graduates appears strong. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts computer scientists, computer-system analysts, and database administrators will be among the fastest-growing occupations through 2012. Admittedly, predicting job growth is tricky. But of the jobs the bureau predicts will grow most quickly through 2012, eight of 11 that require a bachelor's degree are computer-related.

The average computer-science grad started at $50,664, a 3.3% increase from last year, according to the fall quarterly survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Information sciences and systems grads posted a 3.6% increase to an average offer of $43,902. Graduates in management information systems saw a bigger jump, rising 5% to an average starting salary of $43,653. Most business degrees rose at a healthy pace, such as accounting, up 4.6%, to $42,940.

Northwestern Mutual's Zwieg is part of a group of IT leaders who see all this as a case worth taking directly to students, in a program starting this fall by the Society of Information Management and Microsoft. They're planning to visit campuses in a dozen cities this year and next to lobby college kids to consider IT. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates himself will visit campuses to make the case for computer science and IT. To Zwieg, it's time for the industry to show why the smartest young minds should join its ranks. "There's enough hot and interesting things happening in this industry to help sell the story," Zwieg says. "And we'll compete."

One problem IT education faces is that today's students take technology for granted. But having tech-savvy users of technology isn't enough to keep the United States a leader; it needs business-smart people with deep technical understanding of what IT is capable of. Remember, it was engineering students tinkering with what's possible that brought us Google and Yahoo, not a marketing major with a business plan to organize the Internet. "Today's students are less likely to have taken their computer apart than my dad was to have taken apart his tractor," says George Corliss, a computer-engineering professor at Marquette University. "I worry about the builders and the architects of tomorrow."

For IT people who believe in the career, it's time to get vocal to keep the talent pipeline full. Some of the most passionate advocates are women IT pros, stung by research such as CRA's finding that the portion of women considering computer science is at 1970s levels. Their struggle shows it's not an easy sell in the face of global competition and fading excitement for the field. "Coming out of the dot-com bubble in 2000, there's a belief that IT jobs are highly technical, pocket-protector kinds of jobs and not the exciting jobs we really know they are," said Wal-Mart Stores Inc. CIO Linda Dillman at a recent InformationWeek conference; she's involved in efforts to encourage women to participate in IT.

It's easy to see how students come away with that impression. Stephanie Lee, who has known since she was in high school that she wanted to work in IT, is now a sophomore majoring in IT and finance at Marquette University. One of the first IT courses is a beginning programming class, which involves hours on end alone at the computer. "It's a turn-off because people think that's all there is to IT, and there's a lot more than programming," Lee says. "I'd rather be in a team diagnosing problems, not in front of a computer all day."

Dally at Stanford says the IT industry needs to spotlight where the opportunities lie. He doesn't expect a prime-time TV series like CSI or Boston Legal on the IT profession, but he says companies and researchers could do more to show how change-the-world computer apps still await. As an example, he points to the rebirth of artificial intelligence as machines are taught to learn from statistical patterns.

And the industry needs to tackle head-on the question of global competition for IT jobs, acknowledging that young people likely will be collaborating and competing with people around the world. "The future of our students is to work in that global environment," says Corliss, of Marquette, where one professor is teaching an IT class in partnership with an Indian university and another is helping develop a project for a local software company.

The shifting business model with more global development and outsourcing will add complexity to the pace of change and risk. Employment stats paint a picture of fewer programmers and more people who can bridge the gap between business and technology with industry-specific knowledge and project management. Yet even advocates admit there's no way to tell for sure what will drive the industry's future. "Nobody foresaw the change that the Internet would bring," Rockart says. "So I have every reason to suspect we're going to see more of this innovation."

It's a leap of faith, and many smart, experienced IT pros advise against making it. For the believers, it's time to become evangelists.

About the Author(s)

Chris Murphy

Editor, InformationWeek

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in Hungary; and a daily newspaper reporter in Michigan, where he covered everything from crime to the car industry. Murphy studied economics and journalism at Michigan State University, has an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has passed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams.

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